Rubber wristbands show pollution in air, water and food

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University scientists have created a fashion accessory that doubles as a pollution detector.

Similar in style to the popular wristbands supporting various charitable causes, OSU’s new silicone bracelets have a porous surface that mimics a cell, absorbing chemicals that people are exposed to through their environment.

“The wristbands show us the broad range of chemicals we encounter but often don’t know about and may be harming us,” said Kim Anderson, a professor in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “Eventually, these bracelets may help us link possible health effects to chemicals in our environment.”

In an OSU experiment, 30 volunteers wore the bracelets for a month. The bracelets soaked up nearly 50 chemical compounds, including traces of fragrances and other personal care products. They also detected flame-retardants, pesticides, caffeine, nicotine, and chemicals from pet flea medicines.

Roofers also wore the wristbands, showing exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, 12 of which are on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority list. The bracelets, however, cannot detect some metals, like lead and chromium, or gases like carbon monoxide.

To extract the pollutants, the users send the bracelets to OSU where they are soaked and shaken in a mix of solvents, which pull chemical compounds into a liquid that can be tested in a lab. Researchers can screen for 1,200 chemicals that may accumulate in the wristbands.

To create the wristbands, OSU scientists modified widely available silicone bracelets — similar to the yellow “Livestrong” bands — by washing them in chemical solvents. The university can make 400 wristbands a week.

The bracelets are not yet available to the public. Anderson’s lab is recruiting participants for upcoming studies with the bracelets. Citizen scientists — or nonprofessional scientists — can also propose projects to Anderson’s lab at http://bit.ly/1laylpW. The bracelets and testing come with a customized fee. Eventually, OSU researchers may license the bracelets to a company or start their own.

OSU’s research was published in the article “Silicone Wristbands as Personal Passive Samplers” in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The full study, which is available at http://bit.ly/OSU_WristbandStudy, was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Sciences, the OSU Food Safety and Environmental Stewardship Program, and the National Institutes of Health.

OSU is also using the bracelets in an ongoing study in New York City to measure the chemical exposure of pregnant women in their last trimester and how that affects their children after birth. The volunteers are wearing the bracelets as well as a traditional air sampling unit, which consists of a 5-pound backpack with a fan and battery.

Test participants prefer the lightweight wristbands, Anderson said, because they don’t require energy or maintenance and are easy to wear.

“People are more likely to wear bracelets that are not bulky, expensive or require a lot of preparation,” she said. “The wristbands are small and easy to wear.”

OSU scientists are also using the technology to study pesticide risks in West Africa by placing samplers in irrigation canals and adjacent rivers and recently published a study in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, available at http://bit.ly/OSU_WAStudy.

Later this year, OSU will hand out the bracelets to West African farmers so they can learn how to reduce their exposure to agricultural chemicals.

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